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Updated Tuesday, December 11, 2012 at 06:20 PM

Democratic duo joins with GOP to shake up state Senate

By Brian M. Rosenthal
Seattle Times staff reporter

Something unprecedented happened in Olympia on Monday, but state legislative leaders disagree about whether it represents an innovative new governing model or an arrogant power grab.

Democratic State Sens. Rodney Tom and Tim Sheldon announced they would create a majority power-sharing coalition with Senate Republicans, throwing control of the chamber into question.

While the new coalition pledged to start preparing for next month's session, Democratic leaders who now hold a slim majority signaled they will fight the proposal.

Tom, of Medina, and Sheldon, of Potlatch in Mason County, proposed they become the Senate's new majority leader and president pro tempore, respectively, with committee chairmanships split equally between Republicans and Democrats.

All 23 Republican senators have signed on, theoretically giving the coalition a one-vote majority in the 49-member chamber.

"The public out there is hungry for us to come together, to work together in a collaborative manner," said Tom, a former Republican, "and that's exactly what this coalition is trying to accomplish."

But some Democrats, who control the House and governor's mansion, complained they were not consulted about the plan and would be excluded from the most powerful committee posts, including the education, health-care and budget panels.

"This is not a coalition, it's a takeover," said Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell, who would lose her longtime post atop the Senate education committee. "If Senator Tom and Senator Sheldon want to go over to the Republican side, they should just become Republicans."

Democratic State Party Chairman Dwight Pelz went even further, calling the renegades "a couple of lonely men that feel this need to be important."

He called the plan risky and a "recipe for gridlock in Olympia."

Gov.-elect Jay Inslee said in a statement that "regardless of the structure in the Senate, I look forward to working with legislators from both parties to move our state forward."

How would it work?

The proposal, which Tom said he and Sheldon have been thinking about since joining with Republicans to control the budget process last session, would effectively eliminate the Republican Caucus when the Legislature convenes Jan. 14.

In its place would be the Majority Coalition Caucus, composed of all 23 Republicans and Tom and Sheldon. Democrats would constitute the minority caucus.

Democrats and Republicans would chair six committees each, with a majority of just one vote. Three committees would be evenly split and co-chaired by one Republican and one Democrat.

The new coalition has already decided which party would get which committees.

As in every other session, bills that clear their respective committee would get a full vote on the floor.

The goal, coalition leaders say, is to spur more debate in committees and on the floor. They hope more Democrats will come onboard, too.

"It's naive or brilliant," said Dave Freiboth, leader of the King County Labor Council. "Who knows?"

The move is similar to what is taking place in the New York State Senate, where five Democrats have joined with Republicans to create a new majority.

Fifty years ago, the Washington state House had a different kind of power-sharing arrangement between the parties.

The House also operated with co-speakers in the late 1990s, when each party had 49 members.

Democratic response

Many Democrats were quick to argue that the new proposal does not represent true bipartisanship.

They said the most important committees — Ways and Means, Health Care, and K-12 education — would be led by Republicans.

And the majority floor leader, who designates which bills go to which committee, would also be a Republican, Sen. Joe Fain, of Auburn.

"You can kill bills or promote bills based on which committee you send them to," said Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle, who was due to be the floor leader under a plan previously advanced by Democrats. "It's a powerful post."

Frockt and other Democrats had proposed to create an evenly led Select Education Committee focused on school funding, and to give Republicans an unprecedented number of seats on other committees.

Now, the Senate Democratic Caucus is planning to meet to decide how to respond to the Majority Coalition Caucus proposal.

Would they really turn down the opportunity to chair six committees?

"I just don't know," Frockt said.

The committee chairs announced by the new coalition indicate the Senate could produce very different legislation next session.

The powerful Ways and Means Committee, for example, would be led by Sen. Andy Hill, of Redmond, with Spokane's Sen. Michael Baumgartner as vice chairman.

Both favor limited government, and Hill said Monday the committee would not consider new taxes.

An education committee under Sen. Steve Litzow, of Mercer Island, would be more inclined to support so-called education-reform ideas like charter schools.

The state teachers union backed McAuliffe and opposed Litzow in November.

Republicans would also assume control of the Health Care Committee just as the state is deciding how to implement President Obama's signature health-care law.

But the new coalition would still have to negotiate with the House and governor — in addition to other senators — to enact legislation.

"Getting a budget passed through the state Senate this year was probably going to require a group effort anyway," said Marty Brown, a former budget director for Gov. Chris Gregoire. "At least they're making their move now instead of later."

Staff reporters Bob Young, Keith Ervin and Andrew Garber contributed to this report.

Brian M. Rosenthal: 206-464-3195 or brosenthal@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @brianmrosenthal.


RACHEL LA CORTE / AP
Democratic state Sen. Rodney Tom, center, is surrounded by Republican Senate leadership as he announces a Senate power-sharing plan on Monday in Olympia. Democratic Sen. Tim Sheldon stood by in the back row at left.





Tim Sheldon, D-Potlatch





Rodney Tom, D-Medina





Sen. David Frockt, D-Seattle




KEN LAMBERT / THE SEATTLE TIMES
Dwight Pelz, Democratic State Party chairman




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